For Man and Citizen- The French Revolution

Katy Clark

Post-war France was in an economic and agricultural crisis

Liberty, freedom, and equality. These terms are synonymous with the values that pulsed through the hearts of the triumphant French soldiers sailing their way back to their homeland after the victorious pursuit of helping the American colonies win their freedom against the tyranny of the British Monarchy. As white sails and never-ceasing waves brought them closer home, their fiery passion for freedom burned with an intense flame. The events and the consequences that followed would spread throughout France like wildfire and the cause for freedom and liberty would be almost all-consuming in the worst way. Shouts of victory would turn to wrath and anguish. France would embark on its own revolutionary journey toward liberty that the world would never forget. Post-war France was in an economic and agricultural crisis. Compounding debts from the assistance in the American Revolution and the devastating seasonal events took their toll on precious crops such as wheat. Food prices, particularly grain and bread skyrocketed to epic proportions, leaving many Frenchmen on the brink of starvation. Meanwhile, the aristocracy and monarchy exploited these resources on a gluttonous lifestyle that stretched far beyond the consumption of bread. Funds that might have been used to ease the suffering of the people were used on lavish clothing, ceremony, and other trivial pursuits. The monarchy’s solution to the economic crisis was heavy taxation to help pay France’s debt. This caused further suffering as unemployment was at a troubling high, and famine and malnutrition plagued almost every home. Political unrest was underway as the commoner raged against the tradition of class, religious authority pressed by the Catholic church, and royal absolutism. Bread riots turned violent as the pangs of starvation gave way to madness. A nation of hurting people looking for hope turned their eyes to a few men who would step out among the ordinary and take their place on platforms that drew all eyes toward them. Freedom rhetoric was on their lips, stroking all ears that burned to hear that their pleas would be heard, and that tyranny would once again be overthrown. Among these men, was Maximillian Robespierre. A strong orator, Robespierre had a distaste for the structure of the Estates. The First Estate was made up of Nobility. The Second held the clergy, and the Third Estate was made up of the common folk. He would become the champion of the Third Estate, or as they dubbed him, the “incorruptible.” On May 4th, 1789, Robespierre stood before the Estates to speak about the grievances of the commoner. ‘The day forever fortunate has arrived, which the French people have consecrated to the Supreme Being. Never has the world which He created offered to Him a spectacle so worthy of His notice. He has seen reigning on the earth tyranny, crime, and imposture. He sees at this moment a whole nation, grappling with all the oppressions of the human race…He did not create kings to devour the human race. He did not create priests to harness us, like vile animals, to the chariots of kings and to give to the world examples of baseness, pride, perfidy, avarice, debauchery, and falsehood. He created the universe to proclaim His power. He created men to help each other, to love each other mutually, and to attain to happiness by the way of virtue.’ With wide eyes and narrow hearts, the nobility realized that plans would have to be drawn in preparation for a struggle that they had underestimated as potential instead of imminent. They would soon comprehend that revolution was shouting just outside the castle gates. The king’s financial minister, Jacques Necker implored the king to lay aside his pricey tastes for the good of his country and the people he sought to rule over. Necker hoped that this would appease the growing anger in the common folk and extinguish potential civil unrest. Disappointed in this sound advice, King Louis fired Necker.
For Man and Citizen- The French Revolution
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, 1830

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For Man and Citizen- The French Revolution
The Storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789

The fortress was armed with large weapons, heavy ammunition, and guards

By mid-June 1789, the self-appointed National Assembly gathered at a separate location, in what is described as an indoor tennis court to discuss their disdain for the nobility and aristocracy and their plans to defy France’s king. The participants of the assembly fixed their sights on the Bastille, a mighty stone structure that symbolized the corrupt and heavy-handed oppression of the monarchy toward the French commoner. On the morning of July 14, 1789, hundreds of angry citizens stormed the Bastille and a deadly fight ensued. The fortress was armed with large weapons, heavy ammunition, and guards. Orders to cease-fire were called to avoid a potential massacre by Governor Marquis Bernard de Launay, but he was beaten, stabbed, and beheaded by the revolutionaries. His head was staked on a pike and paraded throughout the city. It was a true spectacle of resistance and savage warfare. The Bastille fell to the revolutionaries that afternoon, and its stone walls ripped apart and dropped to the blood-stained ground below. The monarchial defeat at the Bastille served as fuel to the revolutionaries and pumped more fire into their cause as they set their sights on the king’s dwelling. Men and women broke through the gates at the castle in Versailles, intentionally seeking France’s queen, Marie Antionette. “Lady Deficit”, as she was often referred to for her squander of valuable resources, fled her chambers to the King’s quarters just before the angry mob reached her. Her bedding and belongings were torn to shreds and maniacal shouts echoed throughout the palace. With great reluctance, King Louis and Marie Antionette moved their family to Paris. The National Assembly gathered to institute the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen on August 26, 1789. The declaration consists of seventeen Articles, however, the primary point that can be gathered from this declaration is that ‘men are born and remain free and equal in rights’, which also include the right to property, liberty, and resistance to oppressive forces. Like their American compatriots, the French people realized that far more would be needed to claim their freedoms than by bold signatures alone. Revolution was not only imminent, but it was also necessary. Well-known general, Marquis de Lafayette wrote to George Washington regarding his concerns over France’s revolution and the growing number of angry and armed citizens. France’s revolution did not exactly mirror the revolution Lafayette fought in the American colonies. ‘Now we are disturbed with Revolts among the Regiments4—and as I am Constantly Attacked on Both Sides By the Aristocratic and the Factious party, I don’t know to which of the two we owe these insurrections—our Safeguard Against them Lies with the National guard—There is more than a Million of Armed Citizens—Among them Patriotism Reigns—and my influence with ’em, is as Great as if I Had Accepted the Chief Command.’[3] As scorching hostilities toward the monarchy rose, King Louis and Marie Antionette decided to attempt an escape by disguising themselves as peasants and hiding within the confines of an ordinary carriage, hoping to escape to Austria, Marie’s homeland. They were stopped near the border of France and Austria and were swiftly identified and arrested. They were transported back to Paris to await the wrath of a people who now saw them as cowards and traitors. Treason was an offense punishable by death, so a shouting people who had not yet been soothed to vocal hoarseness demanded the head of its king. On January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI was beheaded in Paris, France. His execution was one of many during the revolution that also included the beheading of Louis’ queen, Marie Antionette. An open carriage used to transport the common criminal and livestock was the official escort of Marie to her demise instead of an elegant carriage. There was no fancy procession as she was led to the guillotine on October 16, 1793. The French monarchy was gone, their deaths being only the beginning of the blood bath that followed under the influence of Maximilien Robespierre. Fellow revolutionary influencer, Georges Danton believed that with the execution of France’s king and queen, the people of France could begin to build on the liberties and 5 www.thehistoriansmagazine.com freedoms that they had declared so passionately. Danton was ready for a forward movement in the hopes that peace and restoration would reign supreme. Robespierre had not yet had his fill of bloodshed. The Reign of Terror was about to begin.
Ancestry UK

The “incorruptible” Robespierre was a walking contrast to that nickname, and he eventually would face the same fate that he had enforced on so many before him

The Great Terror spanned from spring to the summer of 1794 and would claim the lives of over eight hundred people every month under the blade of the guillotine. Fear replaced feelings of triumph in the hearts of the French people as neighbors turned against neighbors. Many were accused of being enemies of the Republic and the glorious revolution. Once a supporter of freedom of speech and universal suffrage, Robespierre enforced censorship to hush any ideas or beliefs that opposed the Republic. Police officers turned into spies, and were stationed throughout Paris, eavesdropping on the conversations of ordinary people. So many were accused of resisting the Republic and given a hasty trial or no trial at all before being carted off to a prison cell to await starvation and prison abuse, or straight to the guillotine to face certain death. Thousands of French citizens were executed under the guillotine. The “incorruptible” Robespierre was a walking contrast to that nickname, and he eventually would face the same fate that he had enforced on so many before him. A few men claimed to have a list of “enemies” that were to be reported to Robespierre, but it was a trick. He was arrested. The few supporters he had left freed him from his prison cell, only to be recaptured. Unwilling to face the same fate as others, he attempted suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot to his face. His attempt was unsuccessful, shattering his jaw, rendering him speechless and deeply wounded. He was escorted to his execution and beheaded on July 28, 1794. Maximilien Robespierre’s death marked the end of the Reign of Terror. The French Revolution officially ended on November 9, 1799. Historical events such as the French Revolution provide a complicated chronicle of the human story. It contains darker chapters that serve a purpose and perspective that would otherwise be lost if not observed. Concepts such as humanity, freedom, liberty, and equality are at the heart of so many histories. The French Revolution is an important piece of world history that resonates far beyond its decade-long placement in the long chronicle of the past.
For Man and Citizen- The French Revolution
Maximilien Robespierre
For Man and Citizen- The French Revolution

Katy Clark

Katy Clark is a historian and writer from East Tennessee. She graduated Magna cum Laude with her M.A. in History from Southern New Hampshire University in 2020, and has been published in ProQuest, Exploring History, and Frame of Reference. She spends her most precious time with her husband and four children.
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